A frequent theme of my blogs is making Nine of Cups more geriatric friendly. As Marcie and I get older, we keep thinking of ways to make her (Cups, not Marcie) easier to handle. One thing we've contemplated is an electric winch. It often takes a lot of stamina and a fair amount of upper body strength to hoist the dinghy onto and off the foredeck, reef down the headsail, or hoist the main the last few feet, and having an electric winch that requires only a push of a button to do the job makes a lot of sense.
On the other hand, there are several negatives to an electric winch. One is that they are expensive – could we get by replacing only one winch or would we need to replace several? They are also power hogs, if only for a short time – running an electric winch might make the difference between having to run the engine to recharge the batteries on a given day or not. The biggest problem in my mind, however, is that there is no feedback with an electric winch. For example, when we are manually winching the main up and it seems more difficult than usual, there is usually a problem – the halyard is fouled, we forgot to release the vang, I forgot to remove a reefing pendant … Perhaps I'm particularly inept, but these things seem to happen frequently, and if we were using an electric winch, we probably wouldn't notice there was a problem until something broke.
One compromise that may make sense is an electric winch handle. These are handheld motors that plug into a winch in lieu of the normal winch handle, and rotate the winch electrically. I have seen several versions of these, ranging from a homebrew, do-it yourself type to an off-the-shelf purpose made device. The pros are that they are far less expensive than the cheapest electric winch; they are portable, and so can be used with any winch; and they provide a little more feedback than a standard electric winch. On the downside, they are large, clunky things, requiring a secure place to keep them stowed when not in use; and they are either battery operated and need to be kept charged or require a cable and electrical connections.
I looked into the alternatives, and here is what I found:
Home-Brew 1 - I found a clever design online by a sailor who dismantled a 12 VDC automotive winch and had an adapter machined for it that allowed it to be connected to the winch handle socket on a standard winch. He attached a couple of handles, complete with rocker switches to operate the motor. Power is provided via a heavy-duty cable and fuse. The winch motor is geared down, making it low RPMs and high torque. It looks kludgy, but it probably works. Its portability is limited by the cable. I think the cost would be around $200.
Home-Brew 2 - Another do-it yourself option uses a right-angle, battery powered drill and a purchased bit. The drill of choice is a Milwaukee 28v, as the more common 18v models don't provide enough torque or battery life. If it is used frequently, an extra battery may be needed. A weakness is the chuck screw, which has a tendency to shear off, especially when the drill is reversed. The total cost is about $400. It is also available with a reinforced chuck screw and a neoprene or hard cover from a couple of sources for between $700 and $1200.
WinchRite - WinchRite makes a self contained, battery powered winch handle that is a little less industrial looking. Friends I've talked to who have one have mixed reviews. One said that although they had several problems, the customer service was good, while the other had no problems. WinchRite has recently introduced a new model that is more robust and uses a lithium-ion battery. The cost from Defender is about $800. The battery is not removable, so there is no spare battery option.
So, what have we done? We are keeping the electric winch handle as a future possibility. In the meantime, we've made the two hardest winching tasks easier. I routed the dinghy hoist up to the windlass so Marcie, Cups' winch wench, can hoist it with a foot press. I also now climb the mast using ascenders, so she no longer needs to grind a winch to hoist me up. And, although there is still a little grumbling as one of us reefs down the genoa when the wind picks up, we can still manage to get it done. Plus, you ought to see Marcie's biceps after a long passage!